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Life in Lady Writer Heaven


Solitude in a cottage-of-ones-own came to this writer with some unexpected challenges.

It can be the most romantic time of year to be a writer. A few of the luckiest among us head off to cabins in the back country corners of America to finish our novels, memoirs, and manifestos at much-coveted writing residencies. Book dreams that we incubated all of that busy winter are finally going to hatch in the light of a hazy summer day with a picnic on our doorsteps and all the time in the world to be indulgent about our words.

I’m lucky enough to be at Hedgebrook Farm on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Seattle. I can walk through the northern part of the estate, covered in thick woods, and count little plumes of smoke wafting above the trees. The plumes come from the cottages—places with names like Waterfall and Willow, Owl and Oak, Cedar and Fir. Inside the cottages are writers. Ostensibly writing, but quite often not.

While in residence here, each woman gets a “cottage-of-one’s-own” that would make even Virginia Woolf giddy. Each little wooden house has a wood burning stove, a big generous desk, a cozy loft bed, a French press for coffee—everything necessary for a dedicated writer. A resident’s days are her own, too. The only requirement is that she show up for a communal dinner at 5:30 pm, prepared by a round robin of local chefs who know just how to make a pie crust that does the just-plucked raspberries justice. Then you are ordered to leave without clearing your plate. They call it “radical hospitality.” At home, most residents call it “lazy teenagers.” Either way it feels outrageously luxurious.

The funny thing about this freedom—all day, every day, for weeks to oneself—is that it is both blissful and sobering, about writing and not about writing at all. You face the blank page and all the outlandish expectations you had for what you would get done in your time here, but you also face something even more vast and unconquerable: your internal life.

All those pesky heartbreaks and jealousies, regrets and disappointments, long drowned out by the fever pitch pace of modern life, are suddenly audible. The man you once loved, the friend you once trusted, the woman you once were—all return to take residence at your residency, where you were supposed to be all alone and writing the next Joy Luck Club or Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

Suddenly it’s like you’re entertaining a crowd of ghosts in your little cottage—each one with its own unresolved issue to discuss. You study the hand-drawn map of the grounds as if there will be a test later. You start playing Fiona Apple and dancing like a banshee. You almost wish you had a sink of dirty dishes or a strategic planning meeting.

It turns out that the outside world and all its demands aren’t just distractions from writing, as most writers tend to think, they are also buffers for our bruised psyches. They pull us away from our muse, to be sure, but they also protect us from our own demons. When there are phone companies to fight with, deadlines to meet, aging mothers to be nursed, eyebrows to wax—who has time to schedule in soul searching?

The good news is that when you face down the demons, the muse gets inspired by the fight. One morning, I woke up pickled in melancholy. Why am I so sad? I kept wondering as I wandered around the cottage. I’m supposed to be in lady writer heaven. I’m supposed to be productive as all hell. I’m supposed to be ecstatic, my fingers dancing across the keyboard.

I ate the most delicious, locally farmed egg of my life—the proud orange yolk put pale Brooklyn yolks to shame—and I still felt sad. I flipped through the crackly, thin pages of The American Heritage Dictionary (who knew they still had those?!). I crawled into bed, frustrated with myself, and fell back asleep.

I dreamt of past lovers, old mentors, college friends. I realized that it wasn’t such a mysterious thing at all: I missed people that I loved that were now lost. I still had some grief hiding in the less-traveled corners of my heart. I felt sad. I didn’t solve it; I just noticed it. And then I realized I wanted to write again. Suddenly my fingers were dancing across the keyboard, tapping out a deeper story than I would have been able to write before.

When the residents gather for our daily meal together, we sometimes discuss writing, but more often we discuss people: our eye-rolling children, our partners back home, picking up the slack, our long lost relatives. We divulge things to each other we haven’t shared with our own family members. Because yes, we’ve been writing books all day, but we’ve also been reading the forgotten narratives of our own lives.

Talking to one of my girlfriends on the phone about the sparse schedule, the friendships forming between the women, the emotional roller coaster that revs up when you don’t have the Internet or domestic duties to distract you, she said, “Sounds like rehab.”

I laughed, but she was right. A writing residency, at least one like this, is sort of like rehab for the modern life. When deprived of the various addictions du jour—caretaking, multi-tasking, “Storage Wars” reruns—we must face a sort of psychological sobering up. People produce books in these little cottages nestled in the Washington woods, but they also grieve, forgive, and slay demons. The two go hand-in-hand.

As Woolf wrote about a woman’s experience of finally being alone: “All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”

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